The Perks of Having a Newsletter
I'm in the throes of wedding planning right now—or, I should say, the throes of deciding with my fiancé how we'd like our wedding to go, given that we have yet to actually book a venue or set a date. In our planning, we've ruled out the words “have to” and “need to,” because we don't “need” or “have to” include anything. Just because a wedding traditionally includes something like a bouquet toss—or having flowers at all, for that matter—doesn't mean that tradition has any place in our wedding.
This isn't a bad strategy to apply to self-promotion; you're in charge of what goes in your biography or on your social media, no matter what everyone around you is doing. This is particularly true of launching a newsletter, where the format you choose is entirely up to you.
I’ve heard so many composer colleagues admit that they “really should start a newsletter, but...” That sentence inevitably trails off into various excuses: it's too much effort, it takes too much time, they'd run out of news to share, or they find newsletters annoying in general. Now, I send mine out once a month, and I spend one to two hours writing it before I send it out. A newsletter won't actually require a lot of your time, but it does require a bit of creativity in determining how your newsletter will stand out from others and what will make it worth reading.
Most musicians stubbornly default to a very particular kind of newsletter. In this format, a message goes out sporadically to friends, family, and other subscribers whenever there's enough news to promote. That letter lists upcoming events. Usually, it includes performances in several states, even though many recipients of that letter may live in only one, or none, of those states. If this newsletter comes from a composer, it might include an update about new commissions as well, plus a plea to the recipients to consider commissioning or buying that composer's music.
Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with this approach, although if your letter consists solely of a list of performances that are nowhere near me, I may conclude that you're a self-promotional robot rather than a human being and delete or unsubscribe from that letter as quickly as possible. The fact that other musicians all use the same format for their newsletters doesn't necessarily mean that you should use it, too. Just like my wedding, your newsletter doesn't “have to” include anything that doesn't feel like a good fit for you. In fact, your letter might not even include any news at all.
There are so many other ways to format a newsletter. In your letter, you'd probably like to share your newest projects, performances, and collaborations. But if your letter is reliant on these facts alone, you may find that you sometimes you don't have enough new information to justify sending out a letter. Other times, you may have an overwhelming amount of information for just one message.
When I decided to start my own once-a-month letter, I began by scanning my inbox for the newsletters I actually looked forward to receiving. Not just ones I didn't find annoying, but the ones I actually loved. Whether those letters were coming from writers, artists, poets, performers, or other composers, they all had several factors in common.
While some of these letters did share upcoming events, they didn't rely only on those events for their content. Each one was written like a letter to a friend, and each told a specific story about the sender's life. Most of these letters also shared an occasional glimpse behind the scenes at the creation of a new project.
I knew I wanted a format for my own letter that was flexible enough to showcase a variety of different projects, yet could also thrive even when I had little recent news to share. Ideally, that template would incorporate facets of my life as well as the behind-the-scenes elements that I loved so much in some other artists' newsletters.
Whenever I considered what that newsletter might look like, I found myself asking the same question over and over again: Why should anyone else look forward to reading my letter?
My answer to that became poem, piece, post. I've stopped calling it a newsletter, because most of the time, it is light on any up-to-the-minute news. Instead, ppp shares one poem I'm setting now (or a poem that's recently on my mind), one new recording of a piece, and a recent post. That post could be an essay like this one or an interview.
Poem, piece, post marries my recent work with a look behind the scenes at my creative process. In my non-composing work, I aim to de-mystify the creative process as much possible. In ppp, I want each reader to experience that feeling I love so much in others' letters: that sensation of being let in on a happy secret. A poem I share in April may turn into the piece I share in October. And I don't know about you, but I have never regretted getting a poem in my inbox; that always feels like a welcome and much-needed pause.
As I'm writing each month's letter and aiming to strike a tone that's personal without over-sharing, I imagine a few very different people reading the newsletter. I imagine a conductor I'd love to work with in the future, my grandparents, and two of my smartest and closest composer friends. I write as if I were having a casual conversation in a strange universe where it made sense to BCC all of these people at once. If I’m hesitant to include a certain bit of information, I consider how each one of those people would respond to it.
If you do decide you'd like to list your upcoming performances or other events in your letter, you can choose to do so in a personal way. Musicians Jocelyn Hagen and Zanaida Robles both do this so well in their newsletters, easily and seemingly-effortlessly incorporating news about their recent performances with a manner that feels less like self-promotion and more like a friend sharing their life over a cup of coffee.
Zanaida's letters inform you about about her upcoming gigs as a soprano, conductor, and composer, but she also gives you the reasons why she's taken on this work and shares how this work is intersecting with the rest of her life. Jocelyn isn't afraid to share a story about working through something difficult in her creative process, and her newsletters often include a photo of her—a casual photo, rather than the same professional headshot in every email.
The distinction between newsletters that list information and newsletters that tell a story is so similar to the difference between a social media post that says you're “excited” about an upcoming performance versus a post that shares how and why this experience thrills you. The “I'm excited” posts and the list-of-performances newsletters are both surprisingly boring to read, but messages that tell stories spread that excitement to your readers.
When I launched poem, piece, post, I thought the most rewarding part of having a newsletter would be an excuse to promote my music each month to people I'd like to collaborate with in the future. But more than two years into sending the letter, my favorite part is actually having friends and family on my subscriber list.
When I shared an essay about deciding to stop rounding up my age, both of my aunts responded—unbeknownst to each other—with the exact same story about how my mother, at her first major job, refused to dye her prematurely gray hair so she'd look older than she was. My future parents-in-law and my grandfather often write back to each letter with a little update about their lives, and I eagerly anticipate each of these responses.
It can be tempting to write off that kind of support as inevitable and expected. After all, it's practically a cliché: “When I started my blog, my only reader was my mom” could just as easily be “I started my newsletter, and my only subscribers were my family and friends.” But even if no one else subscribes, you want your friends and family on your list. Few others will care about your work and about you the way your friends and family do. They'll open your letter each month, and they'll respond with positive messages instead of unsubscribing. Email newsletters can be a lonely pursuit—a shout into a void—but having friends and family on your list makes each letter feel worthwhile.
A monthly newsletter is an excuse to have your name pop up in the inbox of conductors and performers on a regular basis, but it also lets those potential collaborators learn about you, your life, and your creative habits. I've been pleasantly surprised when people come up to me and begin talking about something I mentioned in a recent poem, piece, post as if we were already in the middle of a conversation. The first time this happened, I was startled—How did that person know this personal detail of my life?—until I remembered I'd shared it in a recent letter.
Over the last two years, I've also realized a few things I'd do differently if I was launching my letter now. I used to rigidly adhere to sending ppp out on the first Tuesday of the month. For the most part, I still do, but in moments of chaotic deadlines, travel, or family emergencies, I've also realized that few people will notice or care if a newsletter is late. They likely won't even notice if you skip a month here and there. And no one will care if your format is slightly different from one month to the next. If I could go back in time, I'd tell my past self to stop stressing out and just send the letter a little late, if that would make any aspect of my schedule more manageable.
If I could start over, I'd also send my letter from an email address that wasn't my personal address, so even if subscribers move my newsletter to their junk mail or “promotions” folder, they'll still get my regular emails.
Plenty of providers, like MailChimp, will make sure this happens automatically. That said, you don't actually need software for your newsletter, at least at first. I initially planned to use MailChimp, but hated that my earliest drafts of ppp all looked similar to every other musician and ensemble newsletter that I get. Since I wanted mine to feel more like a letter than a newsletter, I sent—and still send—mine in Gmail. When my list size becomes unwieldy, I'll find another list-management solution that keeps my letter looking like, well, a letter.
If you're basing your newsletter on a set format each month, make sure you're happy with that format and that it's sustainable. I realized early on that I don't necessarily set twelve new poems to music in a year, so I've expanded my definition of the “poem” part of poem, piece, post to include poems I've set recently as well as the occasional older text. The word “post” is intentionally broad, leaving room for essays as well as interviews. If you dislike any element of your newsletter, you'll quickly grow to resent it as you deal with it every month.
Overall, sending out my letter each month has gone much differently than I expected. I assumed I'd use it to drive score sales and promote the album I released in 2017. But when I write each letter, it feels like a chance to connect with the friends I know will be receiving it. The letter is a space to share what I find meaningful about the work I do and how I work through creative challenges. I actually look forward to writing and sending it each month.
Even the occasional un-subscriber feels so different than I thought it would. It didn't feel great the first time someone un-subscribed, of course, but now I expect one or two un-subscribers per month. These feel like a natural part of the process, and I'm actually more surprised when I don't have any un-subscribers than when I do. There's nothing to fear in un-subscribers; if someone doesn't want to be there, let them go. Ultimately, your subscriber list should contain people who value the work that you share and genuinely want to receive your letters.
When you're putting together your own newsletter, feel free to ditch everything you think you “should” include. Just as a wedding doesn't technically "need" a white dress, your newsletter doesn't need to follow any particular template in order to be meaningful and worthwhile. Find a format that feels uniquely yours, with room to share the most interesting facets of your life and your work. Let me know when you do, and I'll look forward to reading it.